Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Plays Various - April 2007

Photos: [Bottom to Top] National Theatre poster of BENT/Film poster of BETRAYAL/Remy Bumppo's MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION

Nearly a month has fled by without me posting a review. This is a busy time what with my class in the UVIC theatre department wrapping up and a conference trip to Chicago, from whence I just returned. So, this update entry will consist of snapshot or postcard (pick your metaphor!) reviews of a few shows I have seen over the past month. Enjoy...
BENT by Martin Sherman - Student production, Department of Theatre, UVIC

Graduating directing and applied theatre major Chelsea Haberlin directed a very fine production of Martin Sherman's harrowing gay love story set in a Nazi concentration camp. I missed BENT on its arrival in Toronto in the early 80s in a well-known production with Brent Carver, so I was looking forward to finally encountering this highly-reputed play. I found it to be quite beautifully constructed and written, with fully-realized characters and potent dialogue throughout. And I was generally very impressed with the quality of this student production, featuring local favorite Trevor Hinton in his final role at UVIC, James Kott, fellow acting graduate, and Victor Dolhai, most recently seen at UVIC as Tartuffe last fall. Haberlin chose to present the play in the round and this choice increased the intimacy of an already very intimate play. The small audience was drawn right inside the lives of gay men persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and murdered by homophobic Nazis before and during World War II. I did have two small quibbles with Haberlin's choices: one, these characters are all German, so it made no sense to me that the "bad" guys speak with a stereotypical accent while the "good" gays speak without one; two, if we can't hear the words, no matter how strong the acting, we are no longer able to engage...some scenes dropped down to filmic volume and many in the theatre simply could not hear the dialogue. Many scenes are difficult to bear, as we see characters pushed to the very limits of psychic and physical endurance, and beyond. But what redeems us from the unrelenting agony is the love story between two gay prisoners who are never allowed to touch, and yet make love (verbally) in one of the most sexually provocative scenes I've ever witnessed, without any action beyond two men standing next to each other, whispering. The ending of the play feels inevitable but is nonetheless shattering and many in the audience I was with were reduced to helpless tears of grief and despair. I'm not sure, along with Brecht, that this is where theatre should take us and leave us (where's the action needed to change the world?), but it was a memorable encounter with a remarkable play.

BETRAYAL by Harold Pinter at Steppenwolf Theatre, Chicago

I am not worthy, I am not worthy. The words of Mike Myer's Wayne's World characters came to mind as I spent an evening at Chicago's famous Steppenwolf Theatre, an actor-founded company of over 30 years standing that has developed the acting, producing and directing careers of such luminaries as John Malkovich, Joan Allen and Gary Sinise. I first saw a Steppenwolf production in New York about 20 years ago (ORPHANS [1985] by Lyle Kessler, directed by Sinise and starring John Mahoney). Three long-term company members star in this very popular Pinter play about triangulated infidelity between both spouses and friends. The Pinterian twist is the backward chronology employed that takes us from the present - two years following the end of a long-term affair between a married woman, Emma, and her husband Robert's best friend Gerry - back nearly a decade to the first moment of sexual attraction and disclosure at a house party, in the couple's bedroom. The show was exquisite and precise, and well-performed throughout. Pinter requires a highly-skilled actor who can nail the dialect and play the stillness, the notorious "Pinter pause" with emotional and thoughful intensity. This company does so with aplomb and provides the rare pleasure of feeling safe in the hands of mature actor artistry that Steppenwolf does so well. The physicalisation of the moment when Robert discovers and confronts his wife's infidelity - played out as subtle sexual domination and forced intimacy in the touching and intertwining of their bare feet as they lie in bed - is intense. Each performance at Steppenwolf is followed by a post-show discussion about the play with a company associate director. I was one of about 2 dozen, or around 10% of the house, who enjoyed a roughly half hour conversation about the play. I met with associate director David New following this and he very kindly showed me both the downstairs theatre space (previewing ANNE FRANK directed by Tina Landau) and took me through the building as we talked about one of my favorite topics (subject of my graduate research), audience education. Chicago has a place in contemporary American theatre history for many reasons, but Steppenwolf is one of them.

MRS. WARREN'S PROFESSION by George Bernard Shaw at Remy Bumppo Theatre, Chicago

This actor-driven company (similar to Steppenwolf but only 10 years old) was recommended to me by the knowledgable girl in the HotTix office that sells discount and day-of tickets to shows across the city. This is a small theatre company operating in one of the spaces that make up Victory Gardens Theatre, home to three stages, all quite small. Remy Bumppo (don't ask me about the name...check their website at ). Their space is a 150-seat thrust studio space where you are sitting on the same level and within 10 feet of the actors. I love this kind of theatre (well-done of course, up close and bad is excruciating) and this Shaw production didn't disappoint. These are classically trained American actors who can manage, as in the Pinter, the right dialect and Shavian pace and acerbity, even acidity. It's a relatively free but unforgiving world he populates, in this case with the story of a successful move from lower to upper class via prostitution of Mrs.Warren and her struggles with her long-lost and rather puritanical daughter. It all ends badly, with even a hint of incest to boot, and every character has his moral positioning made clear. I enjoyed the show, especially in the performance of company member Annabel Armour as Mrs. Warren who looked and sounded wonderful; a rich, resonant voice and strong, clear and decisive physicality. The simple set was effective and the costumes read authentically in the closeness of the room. In theatre this small you need to get the costumes right as you're in the naturalistic mode...we will see velcro closures, snaps etc. in this proximity...this production offered great-looking costumes that helped me enter into the late 19th century world of this early play by Shaw. All in all, a strong production that convinces me of the richness of talent and good theatre to be found in the Windy City.

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